Ask any top sushi chef who’s really studied the craft, and they’ll tell you: The window to eat a perfect piece of sushi is three seconds. In fact, chefs often joke that the best way to serve a piece of sushi would be directly into the patron’s mouth.
But a troubling trend is taking place across New York City restaurants. More and more sushi restaurants are caving to play the Instagram game: Uni gets piled on wagyu and caviar gets piled on top of that. Meticulously cut, obsessively sourced slices of fish change from their ideal temperature as diners take time to get their perfect shot. The result: Sushi masters who spend their lives perfecting technique are losing business to stunt sushi restaurants willing to slap some fish on top of each other.
Instagram is effectively ruining the art of sushi — and at this point, there’s little that master chefs can do about it.
There are a few reasons why diners shouldn’t take time to snap a photo of sushi during an omakase, according to chef Mitsuru Tamura of Sushi Yasuda. “There is a temperature gap between the rice and the fish,” he says. “That’s the best time to eat.” Unfortunately, taking that perfect photo often takes longer than three seconds. “Some people will have one camera, one cellphone camera, and they’ll take, like, three or four minutes,” says chef Masashi Ito, or “Masa,” of Michelin-starred Sushi Zo in New York.
Chef Masaki Saito of Sushi Ginza Onodera, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant, understands the value of the photos and knows that operating a restaurant is a business. But taking photos of sushi takes people out of the moment, he tells Eater through a translator. “To be honest, I would like to ban cameras,” Saito says. “I want the cellphones in airplane mode and stored away. I want them to concentrate on their eating.”
Ultimately, an omakase — which at Ginza Onodera costs up to $400, and elsewhere rarely dips under $100 — tells a story that goes beyond the restaurant, Saito adds. Each tiny piece represents the chef, but also the fisherman who caught the fish, the importer, the deliverer, and then the chef’s preparation, he says. “There’s a story [to every piece of sushi] that can’t be told in an hour,” Saito says. “A process over the course of four, five days culminates in one piece of sushi. That’s why this is worth $400.”
Beyond desecrating the sanctity of sushi, Instagram has shifted the landscape dramatically by proliferating sea urchin, or uni, as it’s called in Japan. The salty, plump yellow petals are synonymous with expensive sushi, and although they’re delicate in taste, they are visually loud and stand out among other cuts of fish. Fancy new iPhones can get in real tight and capture all of their creamy little pores.
According to Mark Nonoyama of Maruhide, a sea urchin importer and fishery based in California, sales of the roe have more than doubled over the last five years. Ito says many customers ask for uni the minute they sit down. Although uni has always been a crucial piece in high-end omakases, it has sprawled out onto the entire menu. “I go to some restaurants and [there is uni on] a third of the menu, hot apps and entrees that would never have had uni previously,” says Ian Purkayastha, the wunderkind ingredient dealer behind Regalis, which specializes in luxury ingredients like truffles, caviar, and seafood. Even on his own company’s Instagram, uni photos tend to outperform other photos in terms of engagement, he says. Now, Purkayastha — who supplies to restaurants like Boulud Sud, Eleven Madison Park, and Gabriel Kreuther — says he feels like his company sells three times as much uni as it has in previous years.
Sea urchin is admittedly delicious, but it’s not quite the canvas that many talented chefs crave, they say. It requires zero cutting, curing, or aging, making it more a test of a chef’s shopping skills than his or her talent. “I’ll be happier if [diners] said the mackerel was the best ever had than if people tell me, oh, the uni was,” says Ito. “Of course [the uni] is amazing, because it’s the best uni. But it would make you happy if someone said your mackerel is the best. Because I took time to fillet the fish, deboned it, scaled it, and I cured the fish.”
Uni, though popular on Instagram, is typically served gunkan maki, a style that makes it more time sensitive than other pieces — making the pause before eating even more ridiculous. Gunkan maki is a traditional style of wrapping seaweed around a ball of rice to create a little cup that holds the urchin roe in place so it doesn’t slide off the rice. The clock starts the second the ring of crisp, paper-thin seaweed touches the moist, warm rice. The texture goes from crisp to soggy in a matter of moments, which is why it must be formed, passed, and eaten immediately. “The seaweed, if you leave it too long, it gets wet and it gets soggy and it stays in your mouth, even after uni and the rice is gone,” says Ito.
This problem becomes more severe when multiple pieces of uni are shoved together for the ultimate photo op, as with the wildly popular uni flight at Juku, where five pieces of uni are lined up side by side to create a sauna of seaweed-melting love. The cost changes day to day, but the supplement to the omakase can cost around $50.
In theory, the uni flight is a great way to experience a variety of the delicacy, but in reality, this preparation couldn’t be less suited to the dish. First, the chef must make all five or more maki, which takes a couple minutes. Then the diner probably photographs it, and then, finally, it can be eaten. Even the fastest photographer/eater could not possibly get to the last piece in under five minutes. I have eaten an uni flight, and by the time I made it all the way to the last piece, it was like biting into a goldfish in a plastic bag.
It’s an enormous waste of product, time, and talent, but it produces one hell of an image. Chef Kazuo Yoshida even initially served the flight with the support of an action figure, upping that photo factor. As such, it remains a huge marketing tool for the restaurant; the flight makes up a not-insignificant chunk of Juku’s food-related Instagram posts. (In a statement, a Juku spokesperson says they have no idea if Instagram helps sales. “We try to provide our customers with unforgettable experiences. ‘Instagramable’ content is simply a consequence of our pursuit of quality products.”)
Even worse than the uni flight is the trend of combining multiple proteins on top of the same ball of rice — a method that may seem like a luxury power move, but demeans every ingredient involved. “Many places are putting tuna and sea urchin and caviar,” Tamura says. “It’s too much flavor; you don’t know which one you are eating.” Ito sees the push coming from a desire to please the social-media influencers so they have something new to post.“[When] customers [come in] with big cameras or even bloggers, the chefs think, ‘I’ve got to do more than typical, say, ‘toro’ sushi. I’ve got to put some stuff on top.’”
A combination of uni and wagyu has quickly become the most popular way of appeasing the hungry cameras. While many sushi chefs will admit they don’t like the combo, it is popping up all over New York. “When guests ask for something special, I’ll just do wagyu and uni,” says Ito. “I don’t think it’s the best combination, but the fact that it’s the high-end ingredient that people care about, you put those together ... people think, ‘Wow!’” The restaurant rocking this out the hardest is perhaps Sushi on Jones and its famous “Big Mac,” a stack of fatty tuna, wagyu, and uni. It’s a wall mural short of the ultimate Instagram post: The blowtorch comes out for the toro and wagyu, and the final presentation is commanding, with great visual contrast. The problem is, it tastes terrible. The char of the wagyu masks the tuna completely, and the urchin just becomes a salty creme. (Sushi on Jones did not respond to request for comment.)
The whole ordeal calls upon an Alton Brown quote from the show Hot Ones: “Instagram is a great example of a force that I’m not sure is for good. By objectifying the visuals of food over everything else, it demeans flavor and hospitality.”
All the focus on Instagram puts master chefs in an awkward position. The restaurants that do it are feeding a need, and the ones that don’t do it are stuck wondering if they should compromise their values to increase business. “People come all the time for new stuff. I feel pressure, but there’s an area of work I don’t want to go in,” says Ito. “Like, if it will be too much, say [a combo like] crab, uni, wagyu. What is that? What is that going to do? It looks great, maybe, but is it really the best bite? Probably not.”
Don Pham of Sushi Ishikawa is fully aware that plays a role in his business. At his omakase, he serves bites like a piece with crab, uni, and caviar, or one with two kinds of tuna, caviar, chives, and gold flakes — visually arresting items that combine multiple luxury ingredients. (Pham insists that he served the gold flakes, a bonafide trope of Instagram, in the pre-social-media era too, as early as 2001. His pieces, despite their suspiciously wild combos, taste pretty good.) Though he admits Instagram has its flaws, including the spread of copycats, it’s been a boon for his Upper East Side restaurant. “[For] a small place like mine, where we don’t have PR to represent us, Instagram is good,” Pham says. “If you’re really confident with the product, Instagram is going to help you out.”
Ultimately, one can’t blame the restaurants performing these theatrics — they’re businesses, and, clearly, playing into Instagram culture keeps them alive. But diners, who often pay hundreds of dollars for a single meal, should be savvier. Not only would nixing the photo op be more respectful to the art and craft of master sushi chefs, it would lead to a more transcendent bite of sushi, too.
Daniel Geneen is the co-host of the Eater Upsell podcast. He also works as the Eater video team’s special projects and audience development producer.